Language is both a bridge and a barrier in Arrival, a film in which a dozen gargantuan alien ships appear around the world and cause global existential upset. These obsidian-black sentinels hover metres above the earth, silent, still and towering, and in an effort to figure out the intentions and nature of their occupants the US military calls upon expert linguist Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to open a line of communication.
What follows is a grand exploration of the nature of language and humanity, set against a detailed science-fiction backdrop. This is no dumb alien invasion flick, though, and the wider impact of an extraterrestrial encounter on the population is relegated to a handful of peripheral news broadcasts. Instead we’re rooted firmly in a field in rural Montana, where all the interesting stuff happens. Louise works with theoretical scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), boarding the lens-shaped monolith once every 18 hours to attempt to converse with the lifeforms inside.
They are utterly alien beings, not just in appearance but in how they communicate. And chatting is all they seem to want to do. Cowled in mist behind a glass wall, their distorted whale-song speech is incomprehensible to the bewildered translator. Instead she gleans scraps of meaning by decrypting the alien’s written language: inky ring-shaped hieroglyphs splooged out of a specialised prehensile appendage.
The pressure comes in the form of the increasingly impatient US military, who demand quick answers. Her character’s expertise is often distilled into layman-digestible and enjoyable pop-science explanations, in a way that doesn’t feel laboured. But the framing is locked on the human element: lingering shots of Amy Adams’ perplexed face set deep inside her red radiation suit, reflecting both the visceral astonishment of an alien encounter, as well as the intellectual gulf of interspecies understanding. The job at hand is a little more challenging than tapping out five notes on a giant disco synth, or repeating the word cerveza at increasing volumes on your holidays.
This is Close Encounters for the Interstellar generation, a puzzle of a film whose slow and thoughtful pace occasionally dives deep into linguistics and language theory. The beautiful, atonal score and epic cinematography owes a debt to 2001 and Contact, but Arrival is more than the sum of its influences. As the alien message becomes clearer and the plot takes on a more real form, the very language of filmmaking is toyed with. This is the best science-fiction film in years.